The day Dr. Maya Angelou died I said to my son, “Let’s go find her house and put flowers there!”
I expected the 16-year-old response, “Why?”
“Because she was a pioneer for civil rights, women’s rights, she overcame so much… ” and I felt like the Swedish chef, speaking a language this generation does not understand.
He was not uninterested. He was confused. Disengaged.
I was directionless.
Then the 10:00 evening news came on broadcasting in front of her house. With the road listed on the bottom. I said, “We’re GOING tomorrow I know where it is!!
Thursday morning he was in school, I saw on the internet that Dr. Angelou’s home church was offering a public memorial service. In that instant, I decided two things. Waiting for Jordan to come home would mean heavy rain later. Secondly, he needed to understand and experience more than putting flowers at the gate of a beautiful home. What I wanted to pass down to my son was more than one nice gesture of duty. What I truly wanted was an experience of honor, of community, of deep respect. What we ended up with was so much more.
Lessons About Home
So I found her house. The reality of her former presence and now absence whipped into unexpected tears. I added flowers to a few others there. Not piles of flowers like I had expected. Just a few bouquets and notes. I talked to a few others who came by to tell of their stories meeting her, taking her classes, working in her house.
The position of her gated home is rooted between Old Town Club and Golf course started in 1939 and the RJ Reynolds property of Reynolda House. The towering oaks at a hundred feet or more that shield her home from the elements were undoubtedly saplings amidst the tobacco fields of African workers or workers at the mansion. No doubt they waved branches at their owner, a Reynolds Professor of American Studies. The mind boggling placement of her property struck me as a symbolism of her home amidst the elite of landowning southern society, righting injustices just with her presence. The solid gate guarding the home outlined in manicured rose bushes and topiary bushes. I wished my son was here for this. Not because he needs to see a wealthy house. But because he needed to see her social accomplishment in its’ context to other historical properties.
I passed the house one more time, a sunbeam acknowledged the few bouquets left in honor. I imagined she was smiling, watching over each guest, gratefully accepting each of them, saying, “Thank you.”
Lessons On Spiritual Homes
“We’re leaving at 6:45 for the funeral.” I notified Jordan with time to spare to get ready.
“What do I wear? I’ve never been to anything like this before.” He seemed embarrassed.
I realized he had the blessing of having only one family death his entire life that he would have remembered. That was six years ago, before he had style and dress shoes.
We talked about wearing black, and how we’re going to Mt. Zion Baptist to honor Dr. Angelou. We would just show up. I had never been to a Memorial of this magnitude, so we both needed to be open. Maybe we would barely get in. Maybe we would stand. We would just be grateful to get in.
We were late enough to only find seating in the balcony. The half filled balcony. It was open to the public and we both wondered where the public was….
Maybe everyone is waiting for Wake Forest University’s Memorial service. But I had to wonder, if the deterrent was driving down Martin Luther King Jr. Drive into a part of town most white people don’t frequent. I write this humbly but factually. My son and I were one of maybe 20 white people in Dr. Maya Angelou’s church home of 30 years. Other than the news crews, and photographers, we made up the white representation.
I wanted my son to grow up having the experience of honoring someone within the context of community, within that person’s “home”, and to listen, feel, and learn their impact even though they are no longer present. But what he saw first-hand was sometimes segregation remains at a soul level, at times, divided by church walls – even when the entire public was invited through local media over and over. Somehow although I am raising him here, I want a different standard, one that we started at Dr. Angelou’s Memorial.
I want him to be a person to answer invitations when given, wherever they lead. To show up to honor people whether graduation, wedding, or funeral. To not assume everyone else is going to do it and his presence is not essential. I wanted him to know that as he showed up to the communal aspect of life, he would become welcomed and, if only for a time, part of something beyond his online world. I know, I know. He’s 16. This may not be the message he understood that night. But the experience will resonate and do the work that only memory can when we need to remember who we are.
We were deeply humbled to experience where she was most herself, where her voice was heard mixing and mingling before church started, where she heard her first name, and where she found company after service. Where there was great love to offer or fall back on.
Each person we met in the church community reflected a humble power that mirrored the undercurrent of Dr. Angelou’s life.
There were little girls who recited in the next pew over along with the speaker, “I Am Woman Phenomenally”.
Mr. Allen Joines Mayor of Winston Salem, and Dr. Vivian Burke Mayor Tempore, spoke kindly, and a choir sang into the soul’s cells. We experienced joy, celebration, respect and deep gratitude for her life.
There were pastors and church family who honored her wisdom, courage and sense of justice. There were few tears, if any for this victory, this home going.
Dr. Barbee Oakes, the Assistant Provost for Diversity and Inclusion at Wake Forest University, shared a personal problem with Dr. Angelou saying, “But what if I fail?” to which Dr. Angelou replied,
“What if you fly?”
Mr. Colin Johnson, grandson of Dr. Angelou, spoke of advice she gave him when he moved to a new place, “Make friends with the butcher, the banker, the liquor store, and find yourself a good church home” and he thanked them.
One of the pieces of the service that poignantly symbolized Dr. Angelou’s life, reach, work, and service in the world came from the next generation. A mime group of teen girls danced through Break Every Chain by Tasha Cobbs.
To break every chain, break every chain, break every chain. [2x]
I hear the chains falling.
There is power in the name of Jesus
to break every chain, break every chain, break every chain.
I wondered in the African American southern church that was honoring a beloved friend, when the chains would be broken in the greater community at large. Dr. Angelou certainly has drawn attention to them, loosened them, broken through much of them herself, but there is still far to go. I could not have created an experience for my son to see firsthand the division that still exists even while honoring an international figure who floated effortlessly between worlds.
From here on, there will be larger ceremonies- no doubt. Chancellors. Politicians. Big stars paying respects. But I would not trade our experience for the world. In the most authentic way possible, with honor and celebration, we said goodbye to her who ascended the stars, on her and God’s terms. It was the honor of a lifetime not only to experience those who steadfastly loved her, but to share it with my teen son. He will know what he saw, what he felt, and who he learned Dr. Angelou to be for he is experiencing an open-hearted compassionate childhood that will serve him later and in the context of community find her words ring true,
“What sets one Southern town apart from another, or from a Northern town or hamlet, or city high-rise? The answer must be the experience shared between the unknowing majority (it) and the knowing minority (you). All of childhood’s unanswered questions must finally be passed back to the town and answered there. Heroes and bogey men, values and dislikes, are first encountered and labeled in that early environment. In later years they change faces, places and maybe races, tactics, intensities and goals, but beneath those penetrable masks they wear forever the stocking-capped faces of childhood.”
― Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings